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Lawmakers, business owners divided on whether masks should be mandatory

As New Hampshire continues reopening businesses, state Democrats are urging Gov. Chris Sununu to require people to wear masks in many public settings to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We will only have one opportunity to bring New Hampshire’s economy back to full strength, so we must get it right the first time,” 178 N.H. House Democrats said in a letter to Sununu Thursday. “If reopening New Hampshire results in a new wave of infection, the public health and economic damage will likely be too strong for many small businesses and institutions to overcome.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using masks when people can’t stay six feet apart, especially in places with a high potential for community-based transmission, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. While they don’t protect the wearer, cloth face masks help prevent people from spreading virus-laden respiratory droplets when talking, sneezing or coughing, according to the federal agency.

But like many facets of the COVID-19 crisis, the issue of whether these facial coverings should be forced lacks consensus.

Sununu, a Republican, doesn’t believe such a mandate is needed at this time, according to spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt, though his public health team has encouraged people to wear masks.

In a statement he issued Thursday in response to Democrats’ letter, House Republican Leader Dick Hinch of Merrimack argued that Granite Staters are being responsible in following CDC guidance, and that making face coverings compulsory seems counter to the “New Hampshire Way.”

Rep. John Hunt, a Rindge Republican who represents that town and Fitzwilliam in Cheshire House District 11, likewise told The Sentinel he opposes a mask mandate.

“I’ve always believed we only want to pass laws that are enforceable,” Hunt said. “I think you are better off urging people to do it, but the last thing we need to do is pass another unenforceable order.”

Winchester Police Chief Mike Tollett said “everything is enforceable,” and if there were a mandate, local police would give out verbal warnings.

Those who signed the letter to Sununu include local Reps. Douglas Ley, a Jaffrey resident and House majority leader, Paul Berch of Westmoreland, Barry Faulkner and Bruce Tatro of Swanzey, Daniel Eaton of Stoddard, Cathryn Harvey of Spofford, Michael Abbott of Hinsdale, John Mann of Alstead, Sandy Swinburne of Marlborough, Craig Thompson of Harrisville, Lucy Weber of Walpole, Henry Parkhurst of Winchester, Peter Leishman and Ivy Vann of Peterborough, and John Bordenet, David Morrill, Will Pearson and Joe Schapiro of Keene.

As of Friday, New Hampshire had counted 3,464 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and attributed 159 deaths to it, according to the state health department.

As they contend with the outbreak within their own borders, states including Maine and Massachusetts have recently issued mask mandates, requiring people to wear them inside stores and when social distancing isn’t possible in indoor or outdoor public places.

But like lawmakers, Monadnock Region business owners expressed mixed feelings on whether such a requirement is necessary.

Beth Doyle, owner of Moe Momentum Clothing in downtown Keene, said as long as her employees continue staying six feet away from customers and wearing masks — even if customers don’t — the situation will be safe.

“I actually am fine with the way we’re handling it now,” she said. “I like to think that this pandemic is going to be with us for a while, and we need to be COVID-smart and not COVID-paranoid.”

Most of her customers are wearing masks as it is, she noted, and disposable masks are available at the front of the store.

At Country Bridals and Formal Wear in Jaffrey, owner Cathy Furve said she is already requiring all staff and customers to wear masks, and no one is giving her pushback on it yet.

She explained that most of her customers need alterations, making it nearly impossible for her to maintain the proper social distance.

And though she has no problem continuing to implement her own mask mandate, she’s in favor of a state requirement.

“For the protection of everyone, if we make the sacrifice and wear the masks for a little while, maybe this will go away quicker,” Furve said.

Jacqueline Trombly, manager of Frazier & Son Furniture in Swanzey, also said she’d appreciate stricter orders from the state.

The store encourages customers to wear masks inside, and she said most do, but she won’t kick people out if they don’t oblige.

“If they are strongly opposed to it, we won’t make them leave, so it would be nice if the governor made them,” Trombly said.

And Ted McGreer, owner of Ted’s Shoe & Sport in Keene, said having just a non-binding recommendation in place for masks leaves him feeling “unnerved.”

Though he said he doesn’t want to infringe on someone’s rights, a mask requirement would put his mind at ease.

“I’m worried about the health of my staff,” McGreer said. “The good news is nobody has any problem with [wearing masks] since we reopened ... but I think if we are in retail stores, whether we are six feet apart or not, I think we should have to wear masks.”

This article has been updated to correct the name of the Winchester police chief.

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Southwestern Community Services sees spike in need during COVID crisis

With the COVID-19 outbreak putting a financial strain on households in the Monadnock Region and beyond, Southwestern Community Services is ramping up its charitable efforts.

As of Thursday, the nonprofit organization’s relief fund had raised about $175,000, with nearly $165,000 of that already distributed to help people with basic living costs amid the global pandemic.

The surge in emergency need is comparable to that of the 2008 Great Recession — the last time the agency saw such high numbers of people unable to pay their rent and bills — according to Keith Thibault, chief development officer for the organization, which has offices in Keene and Claremont.

And with area residents, like people throughout the country, being laid off or having their work hours reduced because of the pandemic, he said the need has grown exponentially.

“This is like a natural disaster, as opposed to back then, it was the banks that were failing,” he said. “... I don’t know if that means this will be a longer recovery or shorter. It’s hard to say. Nobody has any precedents here.”

Most of the dollars given out to date — which have come from the Monadnock United Way, Savings Bank of Walpole, N.H. Charitable Foundation, Housing Action New Hampshire and the state government, as well as local donors — went toward expenses such as rent, fuel and electric bills for about 100 families in Cheshire and Sullivan counties, Thibault said.

He added that the agency has another 160 applications on hand, and payments to 60 additional households are pending.

In a typical month pre-COVID-19, Thibault said, Southwestern Community Services — which provides housing support and outreach to people experiencing homelessness, among other services — would field about 10 to 15 emergency requests for help with rent and bills.

The rest of the funding disbursed so far, about $25,000, was used to increase the capacity of the agency’s emergency homeless shelters in Keene and Claremont.

An additional housing unit was acquired in Keene, with one in the works in Claremont, to allow the shelters to more effectively follow social-distancing guidelines, Thibault said.

City Councilor and Realtor Mitchell “Mitch” Greenwald is temporarily renting out a four-bedroom apartment in Keene to the agency for this purpose, Thibault noted.

And though the agency has spent most of the money from its COVID-19 relief fund to date, Thibault said it has more donations coming in weekly from local, state and federal programs, as well as anonymous donors.

“What’s not unprecedented is the generosity we are seeing,” he said. “This is an amazing community that we live in ... and the ongoing investment in this sector, [with] how important that is right now, we appreciate it.”

To apply for assistance through Southwestern Community Services, call the agency’s Keene office at 352-7512 or Claremont office at 542-9528.

Anyone wishing to donate to Southwestern Community Services can visit its website, www.scshelps.org, or contact Keith Thibault at 719-4208.

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Sununu to dole out $595M in federal funds; $400M for small-business grants

Gov. Chris Sununu on Friday announced a $400 million relief fund for small businesses in New Hampshire, as the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Sununu also announced more funding to support health care facilities, child care providers, nonprofit organizations, higher education institutions and farmers.

The allocations, totaling $595 million, come out of the $1.25 billion that New Hampshire has received from the federal government under the CARES Act.

Sununu noted that a separate federal program for small businesses — the Paycheck Protection Program — has already pumped more than $2 billion into the state. But there’s still a great need out there, and not all small businesses could take advantage of the PPP, Sununu said.

The Payment Protection Program offers loans that are forgivable, but only if the company keeps all its workers and spends at least 75 percent of the money on payroll. Those restrictions have dissuaded some businesses from applying. The first-come, first-served rollout of the program also meant that some were unable to get their applications in before the first round of funding dried up. (The Sentinel is among the businesses that received a PPP loan.)

By contrast, the state relief fund will distribute money to every business that qualifies. It will provide grants — not loans — that companies can spend on whatever they decide is most urgent.

“We know that the $400 million isn’t necessarily going to cover all the bases,” Sununu said at a news conference Friday afternoon. “But what we are trying to do is make sure that — in a fair, open and very equitable way — businesses really have the opportunity to do the basic things: pay their bills, pay their mortgages, pay their property taxes, things of that nature.”

That way, even if a business cannot reopen right away, “it’s not driving them into a bankruptcy position; it’s not driving them to fully close their business,” Sununu said.

Any business that wants relief funding must submit a prequalification application by May 29. Based on that information, the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery will set the final eligibility criteria and a formula to distribute money to all businesses that qualify, Sununu said.

The program is open only to enterprises that had less than $20 million in revenue in the 2019 tax year and will target those facing substantial losses. Businesses can find the application at goferr.nh.gov.

Sununu also announced that a previously established emergency relief fund to prevent health care facilities from failing will receive an additional $50 million, doubling its size. Of that, $30 million is set aside for long-term care facilities like nursing homes, which have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

In addition, $60 million is being allocated to nonprofit organizations; $25 million to child care providers; $15 million to public colleges and universities; and $15 million to farmers and the N.H. Food Bank.

The funding announced Friday is on top of $250 million of CARES Act money that Sununu’s office had already allocated to help municipal governments, boost pay for first responders and front-line health care workers and support victims of domestic violence, among other purposes. That total also includes the first $50 million infusion into the health care relief fund.

About $400 million remains to be allocated. Sununu said that reserve could be used to boost any of the programs he announced Friday or to address other needs that arise.

On Monday, the relief and recovery office’s legislative advisory board — a bipartisan group of state lawmakers — had issued recommendations on how to allocate New Hampshire’s $1.25 billion share from the CARES Act.

Sununu generally followed the board’s advice in terms of which sectors to support, though often in different amounts.

In making the final decisions, he said he considered what other streams of federal funding are available to particular sectors. For instance, the board advocated immediately distributing $160 million in grants to health care facilities.

Sununu ultimately allocated $50 million in that area, in part because New Hampshire’s health care facilities have already received hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government through separate programs and are likely to get more, he said Friday.

In other areas, Sununu upped the funding, saying he preferred to get more money out the door now, when the need is high. His $400 million for small businesses is four times what the board suggested, and he doubled their recommended $30 million for nonprofit organizations.

The advisory board’s plan would have kept $650 million in reserve to disburse later this year, compared to the roughly $400 million Sununu decided on.

“We looked at maybe separating it out — 100 million this month, 100 million down there and 100 million a few months down the road,” he said. “But boy, the need is really now. What we don’t want to do is create a situation where we’re holding onto dollars that could have been spent to help some of these small businesses … but the businesses go out of business in July or May, or June.”